by JoMarie Fecci
It was a beautiful thing glistening in the sunlight, and on the side panel under the Trail Rated badge was the image of sand dunes and the "magic" word, Sahara. I had never seen anything quite like it before. It was 2007 and the first 4-door Jeep Wrangler JKUs were just arriving at local dealerships. Though I hadn't set out to buy a Jeep, as soon as I saw it, I knew I would. That Jeep called Sahara held out a promise--and in some ways, it would transform my life.
The desert the Jeep was named after, the Sahara, had figured prominently in the life I had recently left behind. After 15 years as a "war photographer," age and old injuries were catching up to me and I returned home to the states to live in a distant suburb of the New York City metro area. The new Jeep reminded me of that vast open desert where courageous drivers pushed the limits of their ancient trucks and drove them straight up walls of sand. I had admired their skills and determination when we worked together, but I only ever occasionally took the wheel myself, and never in any difficult terrain. I had no "offroading" experience to speak of.
Within my first few months of Jeep ownership, I attended a few JJUSA Jeep Jamborees and learned some rudimentary basics about how to drive on the forest trails of the northeast. It was a beginning. At one of those events I heard fellow Jeepers talking reverently about a special place in Utah. I quickly researched Moab and planned my first trip to the western USA to experience it. We didn't do any of the hard trails during that journey, but I was profoundly touched by the red rock landscape and the primal feelings it evoked. In all my travels I had never really paid that much attention to the natural landscapes before -- places were just locations for the drama of the people and events I covered as a journalist. But driving the Jeep forced me to look closely at the terrain itself, and I was inspired.
Back in New York I began planning a "Great American Roadtrip" with my best friend and her son who had accompanied me to Moab. We would drive across the U.S.A. for a couple of months, living out of the Jeep and camping along the way (we hadn't yet heard the term "overlanding" or known that there was a whole community of folks doing this kind of thing), and in 2010 we set off from New York and picked up Route 66 to the west coast, looping back via a winding path that included Death Valley, Zion, and Moab, then down to the Big Bend, and across to New Orleans before returning north. Over two months we drove through 25 states, camping and wheeling along the way. It was epic.
The journey was an introduction to the beauty of the American west and the freedom that could be felt exploring those western deserts. It also opened my eyes to the fact that I needed to learn a lot more about my Jeep, desert driving and navigation if I hoped to delve deeper into the desert's mysteries. And somewhere in the back of my mind I began to think about one day going back to the Sahara.
I started to seek out more experienced Jeepers for advice and someone mentioned a woman in Arizona who could teach me the essentials. I went to Nena Barlow with my big dreams of a Sahara crossing and she quickly brought me back down to earth with a series of very practical questions but agreed to teach me the basics of desert driving and navigation. Then she told me about something called the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles in Morocco. The 15-day off-road desert driving event is a challenge of navigation skills, strategy and mental toughness, and it would be the perfect "test" for me. To successfully complete the rally, I would have to face all my fears about driving on my own in the Sahara--getting lost, getting stuck or breaking down--but with the "safety net" of the rally organization. I decided to step up to that challenge and enlisted my best friend as my teammate, then set about starting to actually learn HOW to do it.
Training for the rally meant lots of trips to Arizona and southern California where it was possible to practice driving and navigating in different types of desert terrain and as I learned more my confidence grew until I felt almost ready -- apart from the dunes. The great sand seas of the Sahara excited me and terrified me at the same time. The incredible majestic beauty of unending dunes stretching across to the distant horizon is awe inspiring. But how to find the way through them and actually drive over them seemed impossible for an urban mortal like myself.
Learning to face the dunes would be my most difficult challenge. My first attempts mostly resulted in me getting the Jeep stuck, high-centered on top or buried up to the axles in the sand. I learned how to dig--and how to use Maxtrax. I learned not to quit, even if I really wanted to just stop and cry. The dunes were humbling. But as I got to know them better, I began to love them more. And eventually I started to get the hang of driving in them.
By the time the rally came around I really was ready. My teammate and I made it through the event successfully without breaking the Jeep or even getting too lost. And we even had our best day in Merzouga, which are the tallest dunes faced during the Gazelle. The first step on my journey back to Sahara was complete.
After the Rallye Aicha des Gazelle au Maroc, I continued working on my Sahara plans, fleshing out a larger project and conducting scouting trips in Mauritania, Algeria, Sudan and Egypt. I have had the great pleasure of learning how to herd camels with a Toyota from the Tuaregs in southeastern Algeria and exploring active excavations of ancient Nubian sites with archaeologists from the National museum in Sudan. I have shared tea in the Sahara with Bedouin drivers and handled a broken-down Hilux in the middle of nowhere. And the desert still has so much to teach me.
It's strange to realize it all came about thanks to a Jeep. A few months ago, I retired my silver Sahara after over 100,000 wonderful miles and 12-years. My new Jeep is a bright red Rubicon, and I am looking forward to discovering the next leg of this journey together.
Posted by: Dulcy Rojas